Fifteen-year-old Quan clutched a slip of paper in his hand. On it was scrawled an unfamiliar address, somewhere in south London. Just two hours earlier his lawyer’s voice had been insistent down the phone line: “Don’t leave,” she had said, it was not safe yet.
But as the detention centre doors swung open to the dark November evening, the slim teenager stepped out into the night.
Within a few days he would disappear – the third boy to go missing in near identical circumstances in a matter of weeks, all released by Home Office officials despite warnings over their safety.
Earlier this year, lawyers brought a case against Theresa May arguing she, in her then-role as home secretary, had failed in her duty of care to protect Quan.
But on Friday a high court judge found the Home Office had met “the adequate minimum standard” of care, and that there were not clear enough signs he could be re-trafficked.
It is a ruling that has shocked anti-trafficking campaigners and lawyers are now planning to appeal.
Tara Topteagarden, from the Refugee Council, said it was “extremely alarming that the court has failed to recognise a systemic failure to properly and swiftly protect child trafficking victims”.
Reacting to the judgment, Fiona Mactaggart MP, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on trafficking, said: “We have also pressed for an effective risk assessment to help prevent children being re-trafficked or going missing. Clearly this did not happen in this case and unless it does there will be more boys and girls who could have escaped their traffickers who are not enabled to do so.”
BuzzFeed News has spent the past three months exploring Quan’s case. We found nearly 200 Vietnamese children have gone missing from care across England and Wales since the start of 2013. Some were being held against their will in cannabis houses. Others were forced to work in brothels.
All of those children were known to authorities. Most were housed in foster families or children’s homes. Some had faced disbelief over their ages and went missing immediately after being released from adult detention centres.
Quan’s story starts last September when a police officer was called to a service station on the M2 in Kent. A lorry driver had just exited the Eurotunnel when he heard noises coming from the back of his vehicle and called the police.
Huddled in the back, among a dozen other people, were three short, skinny teenagers: Quan, Bao, and Teo. We have changed their names to protect their identities.
The situation wasn’t unusual. The number of people found smuggled in the backs of lorries tripled last year and many have been Vietnamese.
The trafficking route from Vietnam to the UK is well-worn. Children and adults are promised a better life, with the opportunity to make good money to send home to their families.
Most begin their journey with a flight to Russia. By the time they arrive there, the exploitation has already begun, explains Mimi Vu, who works for Pacific Links, an anti-trafficking NGO in Vietnam. “It is in Russia that people’s passports are taken away,” she says. “From then on in they are held in debt bondage – told they have to work to pay off their smuggling costs. Many are then transferred from Russia to the UK, often crossing the [Euro] tunnel in lorries. It is all led by organised crime syndicates.”
The route is so well-known that as long ago as 2012 the Office for the Children’s Commissioner recommended to authorities in Kent that all Vietnamese children found arriving alone should be assumed to be trafficking victims, and protected accordingly.
For Quan, Bao, and Teo, things were not so simple.
Once out of the lorry, they were loaded into police cars and taken to immigration for processing, where they were asked their age. Quan said he was 15; the other two boys claimed to be just 13 years old, but the immigration officer didn’t believe them.
Official age assessments are performed by child-specialist social workers, but until a recent court judgment handed down in June, immigration officers were allowed to label people as adults if, on first appearance, their physical appearance and demeanour “strongly indicates that they are significantly over 18”. That was generally assumed to mean 25 years old.
Immigration officials are also supposed to watch out for signs of trafficking, but a reportreleased last week by David Bolt, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, found immigration officers tasked with processing those found smuggled in lorries were not confident “about identifying potential victims of trafficking, and some saw a need for … better guidance on the indicators of trafficking”.
At the time, a single immigration officer looked over Quan, Bao, and Teo and signed off on their immigration age assessment forms. He decided they were adults.
That decision would have lasting consequences. If they had been assessed as children, the boys would have been placed in foster homes, enrolled in schools, and visited by a social worker. Instead, by 10.15am, just three hours after being found, all three boys were entering adult detention.
They were taken to Dover IRC, which closed down in November, but back in September, when Quan, Bao, and Teo first arrived to the UK, it was used to house adults who had been refused asylum or were seeking an appeal.
Fraser Paterson was working for the Samphire Project at the time, an NGO that had a support project running inside the detention centre. He was there at the time Bao, Teo, and Quan arrived.
Paterson often saw people who seemed to be on the cusp of adulthood. “People who should not have been there because they were very much borderline cases,” he said. Some looked as young as 12 or 13 years old, he told BuzzFeed News.
“It was a real shock,” he added. “You see a lot of bad things in detention, a lot of inappropriately detained people, people who are mentally ill or victims of torture, and that’s a horrible thing to see… but seeing a kid in that sort of environment, it just really shocks you, because it just feels so wrong.”
The Refugee Council said it had found more than 130 children incorrectly held as adults in immigration detention centres since 2010. All were later released and confirmed to be children. Those are just the cases their under-resourced team had come across.
Inside Dover IRC the boys were not doing well. Bao was barely sleeping. Short, skinny Teo, who claimed to be just 13 years old, found it hard to hold back his emotions. The loud noises of the centre put him on edge and he would jump every time he heard the phone ring.
Teo could barely hold back the tears when he spoke to his lawyer about the idea of being returned to Vietnam. “[He is] clearly terrified of being found by traffickers,” his lawyer jotted down.
Concerned that he was far too young to be in adult detention, Teo’s lawyers put in an application to get him a proper age assessment, done by social workers outside of the centre to settle doubts over his age.
Ten days after arriving at the centre, he was released and sent to live with foster parents while they waited for the age assessment. It seemed like a success story. But just nine days after being released, Teo disappeared.
Topteagarden explained that vulnerable children often find their way back to their traffickers as soon as they can. Sometimes they have been given phone numbers to memorise; in other instances they have SIM cards sewn into their clothes. They are told that immigration officials just want to deport them, and that only their traffickers will keep them safe.
“Many young people are under significant pressure from their traffickers to return to exploitative situations,” Topteagarden explained, and once they are picked up the trail often runs cold.
Teo’s foster family filed a missing person’s report with the police, who logged the case as “medium risk”.
BuzzFeed spoke to various other child rights NGOs as well as immigration lawyers from six different law firms during our research. Many expressed concerns that the police do not always take disappearances seriously.
Some said they had seen cases where police failed to collect vital CCTV or issue “missing” alerts. In other instances missing persons reports were not filed for over a week because different police forces disagreed over whose responsibility they were.
Senior managers in the Home Office recently admitted to inspectors that they were aware that there was a risk of delays where a minor had gone missing “not least due to the absence of clarity around leadership and responsibilities”.
Back in the centre Quan and Bao likely knew nothing of Teo’s disappearance, but still they were scared.
When he met with his lawyer, Bao barely looked up from the floor. The interpreter kept asking him to speak up; his voice was barely whisper as he recounted how he had come to be in the centre.
Bao had been in detention for more than a month, but until that moment he had only told his story, briefly, to the immigration officials when he was first found.
That meant no one had put in a report to the National Crime Agency’s trafficking referral mechanism – the process by which authorities decide whether individuals warrant extra protection from traffickers.
These decisions can be agonisingly slow. Official data shows that last year the referral mechanism missed crucial deadlines in 15% of cases. In some cases children went missing before they had received a decision on whether they should be protected.
Bao was released 42 days after first arriving at the centre, so that he could be age-assessed by social workers in the community. This time his lawyers asked Kent county council to draw up a safeguarding prevention plan before he was released.
But the council was under pressure. The number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Kent’s care more than doubled last year and resources were stretched to breaking point.
Internal documents from the council show that in late 2015 it saw two large groups of Vietnamese children arrive, but could not find specialist safe housing for them. Those children all went missing.
Despite the pressures, a foster family was found for Bao. But three days later, his carers woke up to find him gone – he had disappeared in the early hours of the morning.
Silvia Nicolaou Garcia, a solicitor at Simpson Millar, worked on both Teo’s and Bao’s cases and had been horrified to learn of their disappearance.
She was still thinking about the boys when she got a call from Quan, who had been moved from Dover IRC to Brook House, a removal centre near Gatwick airport. Before he’d left, he had taken Garcia’s mobile number from Bao.
Two photos of Quan in the centre show him wearing a jacket, fashionably ripped jeans, and trainers. A spiky fringe falls over his forehead. In the first photo he appears solemn, but by the second has cracked a shy smile.
On her laptop Garcia had scribbled her first impressions: “spotty teenager, some facial hair, shaves?”
Quan told her he was scared that once he was released people would find him. He asked Garcia to help keep him safe and to represent him even if he went missing.
With Bao and Teo’s disappearances weighing on her mind, Garcia was incredibly cautious. In the following days she emailed and faxed the Home Office numerous times, chased up alternative numbers with the detention centre, contacted the National Removal Command in Birmingham, and called the government legal department and social services.
She was trying to get through to any government department to warn against letting Quan out without a safeguarding plan and secure accommodation. Days later, Quan called her in a panic. He had been told he would soon be released.
Sounding reassured, Quan hung up the phone.
Concerned, Garcia wrote to both the Home Office and the government’s legal team again, asking them to halt any release until a thorough risk assessment was completed. She sent a copy of that correspondence to the court and then later tried calling Quan again to update him.
There was no answer. “At the time I did not give much thought to this because I know the [phone] reception at most detention centres is usually quite bad,” Garcia would say later.
The weekend passed, and on a Monday in November she called to book an appointment to visit the teenager, but was told Quan had been released three days earlier.
It is only through police records and CCTV footage that anyone knows what happened next.
Grainy footage from a train station near the removal centre shows a boy who appeared to be Quan getting on a train to London, possibly accompanied by another man. The footage was collected by police three weeks after he had disappeared.
Quan made his way to a community centre in a leafy suburb of south London. Officials told police that he had stayed a number of days but was no longer there. They explained the place was used as a drop-in centre for Vietnamese people in London, though when BuzzFeed spoke to representatives we were told people did not generally sleep over.
Social services had not been to assess the centre before Quan was released. Since he left the community centre he has not been seen again.
There are estimated to be around 3,000 Vietnamese children being held in forced labour in the UK. Many are forced to work in cannabis farms, others in brothels, while nail bars are notoriously used as vehicles to move people around and launder money.
Often young people go along with their traffickers due to the massive debts, ranging from £20,000 to £75,000, incurred in being smuggled to the UK. Others have reported that traffickers threatened to hurt their family back in Vietnam.
One 15-year-old found locked in a cannabis house told authorities: “I wanted to ask the people who ran the house to let me out, but I was too afraid to ask. They might use violence against me.”
Children’s commissioner Anne Longfield told BuzzFeed News: “Vietnamese children are at particular risk, we know that, and I’m keen to see proactive work to safeguard them.
“I’m concerned that children are going missing from reception centres and, clearly, there are also issues with age assessment which can lead to safeguarding dangers that, potentially, might have been the case in this instance.”
Longfield told BuzzFeed she would be meeting with both the police and council officials in Kent to explore vulnerabilities around protecting children against trafficking in the future.
Experts are now concerned that the way trafficking victims are treated when they are first found could be pushing them back to their traffickers.
Topteagarden said: “What we have seen is young people being released from detention with no safeguarding plan in place and the Home Office failing to even contact the local authority so that a social worker can pick them up and take them to a safe place. If someone is released from prison or detention with nowhere to go it is very likely they will return to their traffickers.”
In January, Stephen Shaw, the former prisons and probation ombudsman, produced a report for the Home Office outlining a series of concerns about the detention of vulnerable people.
Shaw noted: “It was widely held that releases from detention were not managed well, leaving victims open to re-trafficking or being released to situations that did not meet their care needs.”
Lawyers were so concerned about the handling of Quan’s case that they brought it to the upper tribunal. They argued that the Home Office had failed to protect him from danger despite clear warning signs that he could be at risk of being re-trafficked.
“This case exposes a stark and serious breach of operational duty to take reasonable steps to protect [Quan’s] safety,” said barrister Chris Buttler, noting that it was “not a one-off failure”.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission also argued that the failures in Quan’s case were evidence of “a wider systems failure” and that despite the existence of the Modern Slavery Act, current guidance for authorities “does not go anything like far enough properly to identify risk”.
On Friday Justice McGowan ruled that “the adequate minimum standard” of care was meted out to Quan, and that there were not clear enough signs he could be re-trafficked. She said it was not enough to just say Vietnamese teenagers are necessarily at risk of trafficking, even in Quan’s circumstances when other boys he was found with had also gone missing.
However, the judge did find that “his release should not have taken place until those representing him had been allowed to make an urgent application for an injunction”.
Garcia said the decision was “hugely disappointing” and is now seeking permission to appeal. “State bodies, including the Home Office, owe all victims and potential victims of trafficking a protective duty from harm,” she added.
Topteagarden said: “Whenever there’s a suspicion that a child has been trafficked, effective safeguards need to be put in place immediately to protect them. Children’s safety, not red tape, must always come first.”
Chloe Setter, head of advocacy, policy & campaigns at the children’s anti-trafficking charity ECPAT UK, said it was “extremely disheartened” by the court’s decision.
“ECPAT UK, along with his solicitor and other trafficking experts, provided strong evidence to the Home Office about his risk of re-trafficking on release. Yet this went unheeded and now a young boy is missing, likely being exploited somewhere in the UK for the profit of organised criminal gangs.”
Kent police have now set up a special project called Operation Talisman to investigate the disappearances of two large groups of Vietnamese children who arrived into the county late last year, BuzzFeed News has learned.
In a statement, the Home Office said: “Age assessment is always difficult when there is no documentary evidence. Of those who completed age assessments in 2015, 68% had a date of birth showing that they were over 18, despite claiming to be a child when the age dispute was raised.
“The Government has made it clear that nothing should get in the way of potential child victims of trafficking receiving the support that they need as quickly as possible. That is why the Government brought into force provisions under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to ensure that if there is uncertainty over whether a potential victim of trafficking is a child or an adult, that person is presumed to be a child and receives the appropriate support without delay.”
First published on 30 July 2016 on Buzzfeed UK